From Hell to Purgatory to Paradise

Why You Should Read Dante’s Divine Comedy

The Divine Comedy (La Divina Comedia) is an Italian narrative poem, completed around 1320 by Dante Alighieri. It is divided into three parts: Inferno, Purgatorio, and Paradiso (Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise), and each part, formally known as a canticle, is comprised of thirty-three “cantos,” or poetic sections. Dante wrote the poem from the perspective of a fictional version of himself, and it is set somewhere in the middle of his life. Throughout his journey through the various realms of the afterlife, he is given three post-mortem guides. Virgil, the classical Roman poet and author of the famous Aeneid, guides Dante through the layers of Hell and up the “terraces” of Purgatory. Beatrice, Dante’s ideal woman whom the poet praises in the tradition of courtly love, guides him from the top of Mount Purgatory through the various spheres of Paradise. Finally, Dante is “handed off” to St. Bernard of Clairvaux, a monk who was known for his contemplative mysticism and who accompanies Dante in his vision of the Trinity in the final canto.

Concerning the title of the poem, The Divine Comedy is a “comedy” in the classic sense of the word because it has a happy ending. It isn’t comedic in the way we moderns might think of the term, but rather promotes a glorious, redemptive vision of human life that outlasts tragedy and suffering.

While Dante was a Catholic and unapologetically Christian, The Divine Comedy has universal appeal. With a distinctly Augustinian understanding of human nature, the Comedy shows us how our obsessive attachments, whether to money, romance, or power, will end up distorting our character; the sin is always organically connected to the consequences. The Inferno reveals what happens when human beings love anything in creation more than God, while the final vision in Paradiso gives us a picture of the community of saints rejoicing in the presence of the Trinity. We go from the depths of human despair to the highest heights of divine glory, experiencing the range of emotions and insights upon every brilliant verse.

The Divine Comedy has made a tremendous impact on my own life, along with countless others, so I was delighted to hear that the Baylor Honors Program is hosting 100 Days of Dante. The project started in September and will continue until Easter of 2022. The reading group features various teachers and scholars who “know and love Dante well.” Even though the project is already well underway, readers can still join and benefit from the online resources. Along with weekly videos, the poem itself is provided through a beautiful website lavished with commentary and provocative artwork that help the reader understand the text. Their version of the poem is translated by Anthony Esolen, a professor of English at Magdalen College in New Hampshire. Esolen is a senior editor of Touchstone Magazine, the “parent” publication of Salvo, and has written frequently for Salvo as well.

One reason I’m pleased to hear of the Dante reading program is because The Divine Comedy is hard to digest and appreciate in isolation. The references to poets, philosophers, and other figures of antiquity can make a solo reading more exhausting than interesting. Like Dante himself, we could use a guide to take us on our journey through the multiple layers of Hell, Purgatory, and Paradise. On the website, each canto is prefaced with a short overview of what’s ahead, which supplements the reading with some context and synopsis. In addition, readers can sign up for the weekly newsletter and get free access to the YouTube videos, which dive into the theology, history, and literary artistry at play in the text.

Dante’s Comedy is one of the most enduring and illuminating works of western literature. It continually opens up with meaning the more one reads it.

Peter Biles is the author of Hillbilly Hymn and Keep and Other Stories. He graduated from Wheaton College in Illinois in 2019 and holds a Master of Fine Arts in Creative Writing from Seattle Pacific University. He has also written stories and essays for a variety of publications, including Plough, Dappled Things, The Gospel Coalition, Salvo, and Breaking Ground.

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